Friday, January 1, 2010

Fantastic Future Friday: 7 Innovations that will change the decade

In my Fantastic Future series I’ve been exploring technological ideas to transform the next century. As this is the first of the series for this decade I’ll explore seven things that will transform the next decade.

1) PV Film:These are non-silicone Photovoltaic cells that can basically be “printed” on to materials and convert sunlight into energy.

Besides cost, the main disadvantage to solar power is the rigid heavy cells. In order to install this generation of solar panels they have to come in large assemblies and if they don’t quite fit, well you’re out of luck.

With PV Film the solar panels can be put on flexible rolls and rolled out to fit the area needed. They are less efficient than current solar cells but the light weight and ease of use can easily make up for that.

Another advantage of PV Film is it can be printed on to other materials, like metal roofing. Instead of building a roof and putting solar panels over it, the south facing roof itself could become the solar panel.

With a southern facing roof being a solid solar panel, homes could go all day without drawing from the power grid.

Right now PV Film is more expensive than conventional solar panels, but the raw materials cost 1% of those panels so the costs can drop quickly.

2) Carbon Nanotechnology:

Carbon Nanotechnology or Buckytubes (Named after Buckminster Fuller as the resemble geodesic domes that he was famous for) are carbon atoms formed so each atom is connected 12 others in to form a “perfect” molecule that can made into tubes of any length.

This “perfect” molecule has many amazing properties; first of all it is perfect. By that I mean from one end of the tube to the other the properties are exactly the same, as opposed to typical construction materials that have imperfection in the processing, making them only as strong the spot that has the most imperfections. The forging of steel as it advanced over the last century has just been a process of refining it better to the point we are at now where it has 1% of its theoretical strength. Buckytubes are stronger than steel (or any other material known) and don’t suffer from imperfections.

In building better materials, Buckytubes can be weaved together and held with a polymer to form Buckypaper. This material could cover a football field, be stronger than steel and still weigh less than a gram. An airplanes fuselage made out of Buckypaper would only weigh a few pounds instead of tons.

Buckytubes also transfer heat better than any substance known. This makes it great for electronics but it will soon start to move into places where heat is a crucial element like hypersonic aircraft.

3) Hypersonic Aircraft:
Since the 1950 jets have been governed by air resistance, the optimal speed of current jets is 0.8 mach (80% of the speed of sound) going any faster and the friction gets increasingly greater until it breaks the sound barrier. After breaking the sound barrier current jets must slow the incoming air down to sub-sonic speeds to use it.

Scramjet engines use the supersonic air without having to slow it down making them much more efficient. Unfortunately even though they have less air resistance than their subsonic counterparts their huge speed turns this friction into very high temperatures.

NASA X-43 has reached speeds of Mach 10 before burning up. Using buckypaper this heat could be routed away and the craft could stay relatively cool.

For International Flights Hypersonic Aircraft are the way to go. NY to London in half an hour, LA to Tokyo in a couple hours.

For the 26% of the nation that only cares about blowing things up in foreign lands, a Hypersonic Bomber could be based in Kansas and blow up anything in the world within 4 hours.

For people interested in space, Hypersonic craft could eventually reach speeds of Mach 20, four-fifths the speed needed for orbit. With just a nudge of rockets at the final stage they could achieve orbital speeds.

4) Smart Grid:
In the US the electrical infrastructure was designed in the 1880s and set up in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, basically 1,000’s of major power stations pump in electricity to the central powerlines and then smaller substations kick in to handle any peak demands. If a large power supplier fails, the others try to make up for the loss until the one power station is back on line. If they can’t or two power stations fail, the system will draw to much and the weakest power station will go down putting its burden on the rest, forcing the next weakest to fail, and the next. Until the whole system goes down.

This domino effect means one failure can take out the entire region. To get the grid back up all of the power stations have to start at the same time. If one starts early it tries to power the entire grid and shuts down starting the domino effect all over.

To combat this problem President Obama has asked congress to pass legislation to build the “smart grid”. The smart grid would actively reroute electricity to where it is needed instead of just reacting to drops in the power supply.

By reworking the power network in this country, not only will it stop the domino effect but also it will make it easier for very small-scale power generation to be added to the grid. With the cost of residential solar power systems dropping this will save money in two ways. First the excess solar power can be fed back into the grid, and second in small subdivisions there could be times when they are completely on solar and don’t need the to get power from the grid. There is no reason to keep the power lines active, losing power at those times. So the smart grid will save power then.

The goal of the smart grid is to make electricity more reliable and delivered cheaper. The cost of supplying power is expected to rise, so cutting the waste in delivery is the best way to offset this cost.

5) Bullet Trains:
This isn’t a new technology, they’ve been around since the 1980s in Europe and Japan (Japan actually started working on them during WWII but they became popular in the 80s). But in this coming decade they will make more sense than ever for the US.

Bullet Trains travel at 300-mph as opposed to normal trains that travel at 55-mph. Having trains only move at 55 mph is why plane travel is preferred in the US.

During the Air Traffic Controllers strike, I traveled from NYC to Chicago by train. It was horrible, even though the train was much roomier than a plane; it took a day to travel the 700+ miles. A Bullet Train the trip would take less than 3 hours.

In the coming decade the cost of energy, especially oil, will rise. On a cost per ton basis trains are the cheapest way to travel. With rising energy costs train travel will make a comeback and passengers will start demanding they are competitive with the airlines.

The whole reason Bullet Trains have never been used here in the US is that airlines don’t want the competition. But as we saw in 2008 the airline industry can’t survive $150 barrel oil.

Bullet Trains will start connecting the major cities in America over the next decade giving travelers a choice between flying and uncomfortably arriving at their destination quickly, or taking roughly twice as long, more comfortably for a quarter the cost.

6) Speak Gibberish in any language
Since the mid 90s places like babblefish have been able to translate text from one language into gibberish in another. For example if I take this Buckminster Fuller phrase and translate it into Japanese then translate it back, it almost but not quite makes sense.

Children are born true scientists. They spontaneously experiment and experience and reexperience again. They select, combine, and test, seeking to find order in their experiences - "which is the mostest? which is the leastest?" They smell, taste, bite, and touch-test for hardness, softness, springiness, roughness, smoothness, coldness, warmness: they heft, shake, punch, squeeze, push, crush, rub, and try to pull things apart.”

Translates into this:
The child is the true scientist who is born. They reach voluntarily and reexperience experiment, experience for the second time. They to choose, connect, and test, order of their experiences - " In order to find, you endeavor; It is mostest which? It is leastest which? " They, and hardness and tenderness, flexibility, are rough, touching test smell for smoothness, coolness and warmness does, taste does, bites: They raise, shake, strike, squeeze, push, crush, rub, try the fact that it pulls from thing and separated.”

At the moment this useful product can only deal with text, but voice recognition software is getting good at identifying 90% of the words it is told so soon you will be able talk over the internet and have 9 out of 10 words you speak translated into gibberish.

A program that is being used in the recording industry is “Auto-tune” which takes the musical notes that a singer wants to hit and synthesis their voice to that pitch in a way that sounds almost, but not quite, human.

If you put these three technologies together, someone could say something into their computer in English and have 90% of it translated into gibberish and have it played back in Japanese in almost their own voice, with inflections hitting at the most ridiculous places.

Having people talk gibberish to each other instead of different languages will bring different cultures together as people all around the world will learn to laugh at people who speak different languages instead of fear them.

That and it might be used as incentive to write better translation software.

7) 3-D Printing and Rapid Prototyping:
Several new technologies are emerging that can “print” with individual molecules, building them up on top of each other to form 3-D objects.

This means parts don’t have to go through the lengthy machining process.

As this technology get more and more advanced it could even become a way to manufacture products on a large scale.

The advantage would be instead of a product being manufactured in one place and shipped to where it is needed, only the information and the raw ingredients would need to be sent to a spot and it could be manufactured right there.

This will be invaluable in remote places where they need very specialized parts, like the ISS and as the technology improves (and prices come down) it will start to be used for more and parts that are too rare for stores to have in stock.

Eventually this will become the “standard” way of manufacturing and in order to make a new product someone will merely have to design it in a CAD program and send it to the machine.

The explosion of new and innovative products will be truly remarkable.

As all these new technologies come together we will live in a world where location is less and less important, as both energy and products will be readily available anywhere on the planet and all points on the globe will be only hours away, and you can speak gibberish to anyone in the world in their native language and have them speak gibberish back to you in your native tongue.

This shrinking of the world will make a fantastic future.


Stephanie B said...

All of these are cool thing, cool, cool, cool.

It's a damn shame that Canada, with more area and a fraction of our population density, has a public transportation head and shoulders above our own.

Trains could be a great help (China just built a big one), but we really need to get more cities off the car mindset an into other forms of transportation. More so, more people need to be thinking that way, too.

Another thing of note as we deal with rampant joblessness, upgrading our electrical grid, our power generation methodologies and our transportation system can lead the the creation of many jobs.

Don E. Chute said...

Great Blog. The 7 things is awesome!